I cry into her hair until I feel her body being pried away from me.
“No!” I scream out at whoever it is. “Get away from me! Leave her alone!” My voice cracks and strains under the weight of emotion, which I never knew I possessed.
“We must go,” Victor’s voice says from somewhere above me. “We cannot stay here any longer.”
“No!” I lash out, reaching up with one hand and trying to shove him away.
“Now, Victor,” Niklas says from behind. “There is no time for this.”
Victor grabs me from around the waist and scoops me up with ease and tosses me, belly-down, over his shoulder. I kick and scream and beat him on the back with my fists as he carries me toward the SUV and away from Lydia’s body.
“We can’t just leave her here!”
“We have to.”
He sets me in the backseat with Cordelia.
“Victor! You can’t! Please don’t leave her here like this!”
There is remorse in his eyes. I see it although hidden behind the ever-present mystery in his face, I see it there as plain as I see anything.
He shuts the door and the locks click in place again. I ride in absolute silence to wherever it is they’re taking us.
Niklas has never known when to remain silent. He lacks discipline and because of this our Order has always been fonder of me.
We were together when we were recruited at the ages of seven and nine, but so were two other neighborhood boys who had been good friends of ours. We had been playing ball in the field behind the schoolyard, like we did every Saturday afternoon, when the men came. Niklas and I did not know we were brothers at the time. But we were the best of friends. Inseparable like brothers should be. So perhaps deep down a part of us knew all along.
It wasn’t until four years later, after my mother was killed while on a mission that we found out the truth. Niklas’ mother told us in secret.
It has been kept a secret ever since.
“What have you done, Victor? What were you thinking? Where is your head?”
Niklas white-knuckles the steering wheel. He turns to look at me every few moments, waiting for me to give him an answer that I cannot give.
Quietly, I bite back the pain searing through my hip.
I look over at Niklas.
“You must tell Vonnegut that they shot first,” I say and I see the argument cloud his features instantly. “Tell him that I had no choice.”
“Victor.” He shakes his head and then hits the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. “What has happened to you?” He grits his teeth, holding back the kind of words he wants to say but knows would be better left unsaid.
He hits the steering wheel again.
“I have always done everything you have ever asked me to do. Not once have I refused you. Rarely do I question you. But I don’t because I trust you as I should.” He inhales a sharp breath and I notice his eyes stray toward the rearview mirror. And then he looks back at me. “But this is different. You’re risking everything: your place in the Order, your relationship with Vonnegut, your life, my life.” He slashes the air between us with his hand. “All for that girl.”
“I am doing nothing of the sort.”
“Then what would you call it?” he snaps. “If not for her, then for what? Make me understand, Victor!”
He swerves into the opposite lane of the highway to make it around a slow-moving car.
“And why have you told her your name? You’ve become unstable. They eliminate the unstable ones, Victor, you know this.”
He forces his eyes back on the road having hit his own nerve. His mother was one of the ‘unstable ones’.
“I will not let anything happen to you because of me,” I say. “If you feel you must tell Vonnegut the truth, I will understand. I will not hold that against you.”
He shakes his head dejectedly. “No. As I have always done, I will tell him whatever you need me to tell him.”
He pauses and grips the steering wheel with both hands, moving the palm of one hand over the ridges of the leather as if to keep his hand from hitting something else.
“I hope that one day you will tell me the truth,” he adds, not looking at me. “About what’s happening to you. About what really happened in Budapest. And if that has anything to do with what you’re doing now.”
“There is nothing to tell,” I say.
“Dammit! I am not Vonnegut!”
“No, you are Niklas, the only person in this world whom I trust.” I point out ahead. “Drop us off there. I’ll need to get a new car.”
Despite wanting nothing more than to shout at me all day until I tell him something satisfying, Niklas drops it altogether. Discipline. Something he will never have.
We pull through the front gate of a car dealership.
“Around to the side,” I say. “Wait for me there.”
Without objection, Niklas does as I say and parks on the side of the building next to another customer vehicle.
Before I get out, I glance back once at the girl, Sarai. She’s motionless and lost. Her eyes are open, but whatever it is that she’s staring at somehow I know she doesn’t really see. I want her to look upon me, just for a moment. But she never does and I walk away.
I feel like I should be like Cordelia, sitting next to me wide awake yet unaware of it herself. I know it will take her months of therapy to overcome what she’s gone through. I know because I went through the same thing after I watched my mother die.
The only way I’m anything like poor Cordelia is that I can’t find the will to speak. I just sit here, letting the time pass and being completely incoherent to it, numb to its efforts to cause me discomfort. Fifteen minutes could be two hours and I truly wouldn’t know the difference.
Unlike Cordelia, I’m aware of everything around me. I just don’t care.
Sometime later, Victor emerges from the building and opens my door on the SUV. He just looks at me for a moment as if waiting for something, I guess for me to get out.
I look over at him, letting my head fall sideways against the seat. “You didn’t have to leave her there.”
“Yes I did,” he says and takes my hand. “She’ll be found soon, if she hasn’t already. You have my word.”
I take Victor’s hand, but glance over at Cordelia before I get out.
“What about her?”
Victor turns his gaze on Niklas in the driver’s seat.
“No long stops in-between,” he instructs. “Meet Guzmán at the waypoint we discussed. The money for his daughter. Inform him of the turn of events and that we could not control Javier’s absence, but the job will be done.”
“Whatever you say, Victor,” Niklas agrees flatly, his words tinged with bitterness and disappointment.
Victor tugs on my hand and I get out of the SUV.
As we are walking away, Niklas stops us:
“Where will you go?” he asks, hanging partially out the window with his arm resting on the door.
“For now,” Victor says, “Tucson. Await my contact for the rest.”
Niklas drives away.
As Victor walks alongside me toward a shiny new dark gray car, I fall back behind him for a moment.
“Why are we going to Tucson?”
He stops mid-stride and turns around to face me.
“I’m taking you home.”
When I see ‘home’ on the horizon many minutes later, it doesn’t affect me the way that I always dreamed it would. I don’t even lift my head from the passenger’s side window to look at it as we roll by. Because I know there’s nothing for me here.
Instead of gazing out at the city, I watch the black asphalt move rapidly as we coast over it.
“Where do you live?” Victor asks.
Finally, I lift my head and turn to face him.
“Why are you doing this?”
Victor sighs and puts his eyes back on the road.
“Because I think you’ve seen enough.”
He pulls the car into a roadside convenience store parking lot and puts it into Park. It’s starting to get dark outside.
“You need to tell me where to take you,” he says and I detect the faintest hint of discomfort in his face.
“Your father?” he urges when I don’t answer.
Absently, I shake my head. “My father could be one of a hundred men in Tucson. I never knew him.”
“A grandmother? An aunt? A distant cousin? Where would you like to go?”
I quite literally have no family. Since I don’t know my father, I don’t know any of my family on his side. I never had any siblings; my mother got her tubes tied after she had me. My grandparents both died when I was a teenager. My aunt, Jill, lives somewhere in France because she could afford to move there and she disowned my mom when I was thirteen-years-old. And in-turn, she disowned me, accused me of being just like my mom even though I was as different from her as night is from day.
Not wanting to give Victor any reason to believe that he owes me anything else, I say the only person that comes to mind so that he can drop me off and leave me to whatever kind of life I can make for myself.
“Mrs. Gregory,” I whisper quietly, lost in the memory of the last time I saw her. “She lives about ten minutes from here.”
I catch Victor’s eyes staring at me from the side and mine meet them for a moment. What is he waiting for? He seems to be studying my face, but I don’t know why.
I look away and point in the direction he should go next.
Victor puts the car into Drive and we head for the trailer park where I used to live.
It looks exactly the way it did when I left, with broken toys scattered around in side-yards, old beat-up cars parked in various spots with grass grown up around the flat tires. Window unit air conditioners hum a racket into the early evening air and dogs bark from their short chains wrapped around trees. When we drive by the little blue trailer I lived in for most of my life, I barely look at it. But I do wonder, just for a moment, who lives there now and if they ever managed to get rid of the incessant cockroach infestation that my mom never could.
“Right here,” I say quietly, pointing to what I hope is still Mrs. Gregory’s home two trailers down.
But seeing the bright red Bronco parked out front, I’m beginning to think that it’s not. After nine years I wouldn’t expect it to be.
I go to get out, but Victor stops me.
“Take this,” he says, reaching into his inside suit jacket pocket.
He pulls out a thick wrapped stack of one hundred dollar bills and hands them out to me. I glance to and from him and the money, hesitant only because it’s so unexpected.
“I know it’s blood money,” he says, putting it further into my reach, “but I want you to take it and do whatever you need to with it.”
I nod appreciatively and take the stack of bills into my fingers.
I start to walk away but I stop and say, “What about Javier? If he’s willing to pay that much to have me killed, he’ll send someone else to find me if you won’t do it.”
“He will be dead before that happens.”